Annie Baker’s The Antipodes is a masterpiece of overlapping parts. Co-directed by Baker and designer Chloe Lamford, the entire play centres on eight colleagues working for an unknown organisation who are struggling to resolve an unknown problem. The characters take their allotted places around an oval conference room table and try to devise stories. They used to be good at this, their last project, “Heathens”, was an international success, but now they’re floundering. The boss suggests inappropriate icebreaker exercises, such as telling the story of losing your virginity, which occasionally solicit wild oversharing, in particular a story of self-healing from a suspected STD thanks to some cathartic shower masturbation.
The characters frequently talk over one another or shut each other down, creating a brilliantly naturalistic depiction of a meeting underscored by office politics. Their dialogue is also a collage of different stories, from the personal to the grandly mythological. Vague allusions to apocalyptic weather events and the pressing need for people to find solace in stories make further overlaps with the world outside the theatre.
There’s a widely repeated view that Baker’s plays have “no plot”. In a recent Guardian interview with the playwright, Mark Lawson sung Baker’s praises but suggested, “Her plays should still be avoided by people who like plot and theme clearly signposted.” Indeed, the obsession people have with neatly categorising Baker’s work demonstrates precisely what The Antipodes riffs on: the comfort found in revisiting ancient stories and myths with clear narrative arcs and triumphant heroes to make sense of confusion. The fact Baker’s writing doesn’t appear to immediately adhere to a classic story format or provide an obvious moral means some people get discomfited by it.
But while her plot structure is deliciously opaque, Baker’s characters are instantly recognisable. The Antipodes is crammed with variations on the theme of “that guy” – that plaid shirt guy, that hoodie guy, that linen suit jacket guy, that snuggly jumper guy etc – who despite dominating the conversation and the office space, end the play as fairly interchangeable entities. Yet even when depicting certain types, Baker does so without cynicism. There’s a lovingness to how she writes people, so that even a lack of defining characteristics becomes an acutely observed personality trait.
Likewise, blank spots and omissions in the action of the play acquire significance. There are hundreds of stories contained within The Antipodes in addition to the ones verbalised. Stories, for instance, in the silences and interruptions. The contributions of Adam (Fisayo Akinade), the only black person at the table, and Eleanor (Sinéad Matthews), the only woman, are excluded from the meeting’s transcript: geeky note-taker Brian (Bill Milner) simply stops typing when they speak. Adam is also constantly blocked from speaking, while Eleanor’s description of time is stolen by a male colleague and presented to a superior as his.
But most of all, there are so many stories in the visual clues. Co-direction with a designer is extremely rare, but Baker realises the importance of visual design far more than most playwrights and directors. In John, performed at the National Theatre in 2018, the dilapidated and overstuffed B&B setting was a character in itself. Baker designed costumes for an adaptation of Uncle Vanya earlier in her career, so the collaboration with Lamford makes a lot of sense.
It’s the details the pair repeatedly get spot-on. There is, for example, a novel’s worth of information contained in the outfit changes of Sarah (Imogen Doel), the chipper PA whose regular brief appearances in the room become the main marker of the passage of time. This is character trajectory via jumpsuits, her borderline-infantile outfits throwing up endless questions, like why today is a monochrome-and-blazer day (is she aware something sombre is happening behind the scenes?) or why she increasingly opts for bold, abstract tropical prints when the characters are trapped in the office due to a rampaging storm (is this false positivity in the face of known doom?).
But the character who is by far the most intricately drawn is Eleanor. Along with her needlecord pinafore, maroon opaques and oversized Aran cardigan – all hygge-tinged nods to her Nordic heritage – Eleanor ends the play surrounded by stuff. There’s the voluminous pale denim tote bag, the multi-purpose drawstring bag and the satchel saddle bag she always has with her, plus the salmon pink jumper she’s knitted over the duration of the project and, now, childhood memorabilia including a mini-troll doll, craft paper paintings and stories originally dictated to her mum. Women tell stories through stuff, construct their identities through stuff and read each other through stuff. By smothering Eleanor in visual details, Baker tells us a huge amount about who this woman was as a little girl right through to who she is today, sitting at the table dipping green apples in almond butter. There’s plenty of plot in an Annie Baker play, if you know where to look.
“The Antipodes” runs until 23 November
National Theatre, London SE1
This article appears in the 06 Nov 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What went wrong